The advent of spring has relit the path of the Kurdish struggle in Turkey. Activists tighten the ropes on banners strung over Newroz celebrations. But what do the slogans above mean to those dancing halay below?
Young men fueled the festivities at Kazlıçeşme, a twenty-minute bus ride southwest of Istanbul’s tourist hub. On the long walk between public transportation and the celebration-cum-rally, packs of youth in faux-leather jackets, slim dark jeans, and jet-black gelled hair sped past me. Together we strode toward the public square of the dusty district of Zeytinburnu, anticipating a rainstorm.
The sounds of spoken Kurdish pierced the air. The native tongue of millions in Istanbul, it is rarely heard in public. The aural quality of Kurdish correlates to the geographical predicament of its people – distinct yet indivisible from Turkish, Arab, and Iranian lands. I took a moment to check my environment – inexplicably on edge. Picking out Kurds by sight in Turkey is often a guessing game, even for natives (though few will admit it). The youth around me gave themselves away in sibilant spurts of their non-Turkish native tongue.
They advanced, snatching up braids of yarn in red, yellow, and green. The source, arms outstretched, returned the Kurdish holiday greeting, “Newroz piroz be”. As would happen to many other spaces in the coming days, Newroz had transformed this corner of the Turkish Republic into something quite different.
Each year in the country, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) provides the logistics behind a string of Newroz holiday celebrations that span from Istanbul to the southeastern “capital of Kurdistan,” Dıyarbakır. On March 17, the country’s eyes turned to Istanbul’s Kazlıçeşme Square, host to the first of these events, with a conflicting outlook. Since the late 1980s, Newroz has become a flashpoint for tensions over a decades-long and bloody conflict between state forces and Kurdish rebels, principal among them, the PKK. This spring is different. The Turkish government has entered negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the iconic, imprisoned leader of the PKK, along with the BDP and Kurdish politicians. The newborn peace process raised hopes that this year’s Newroz would symbolize a new era for Turkish Kurds.
Reaching the entrance to the square, the dark-clad adolescents sprinted past me into a larger crowd. Wrinkled veterans, cheery housewives, overworked teachers, dressed-down civil servants, and wide-eyed children in fathers’ arms waited to enter the festival grounds. I turned in circles to survey the numbers, imagining an entire soccer pitch beneath the chaotic queue. Transformed by the crowd, the previously cautious young men now heaved slogans over the shuffling mass with raised fists. “Freedom for Apo!” their environs echoed, calling for PKK leader Öcalan’s release (Apo, a common nickname for Abdullah’s, is used endearingly by Kurds for the jailed leader).
The young and old who had enveloped me as we entered the event’s gates dispersed seamlessly into the tens of thousands already gathered into the open square. Music from loudspeakers circulated through the regions of the throng. Ahead of me in the crowd spun a circle within a circle: five traditionally dressed halay dancers were circumscribed by a larger ring who, with interlocked arms, lifted, crossed, and dropped their feet in semi-unison. Grinning broadly and keeping step with the inner core of spinning green scarves, purple dresses and gold sequins, the periphery converted bystanders into dancers-by.
Dark-eyed children in green and yellow bandanas sat on their parent’s shoulders just above the sea of black hair. They assess the men and women leading chants from loudspeakers in the distance. Banners are unfurled and swim through the crowd, carrying the same and similar slogans. Added to the shouts for the release of the PKK leader are “Freedom to Kurdistan” and “Status to Kurds.” “Democratic Solution” is displayed across a long yellow banner above the central stage. “Justice to the People” yet another slogan challenges.
Political activists work primarily by reducing complex demands born out of centuries of frustration into punchy, memorable expressions. Freeing Öcalan from an island prison in the Sea of Marmara may not be a likely concession from the Turkish Government, but it is nonetheless at least a clear demand. Searching for the exact meaning of the remaining slogans, however, opens the floodgates to a spectrum of beliefs and articulations.
A stratocumulus ceiling gradually deposited barely-detectable mists over the Newroz revelry. The humid air absorbed cackles from flirting teens and gurgling yelps from costumed grandmothers. A stoic character furrowed his dark, defining eyebrows and stroked a grizzled beard. He wore full-on khaki military fatigues, trim at the waste and loose about the arms and legs. Helicopter blades puttered far above the field.
Introducing myself and expecting the same, the mock rebel answered that he was born “elsewhere”. His support for the ongoing negotiations between the Turkish state and PKK? “It’s possible.” And his name? “Boş ver” (leave it alone). Others have written on Kurds who are sticking to their guns, literally and figuratively, out of deep-seated distrust of promises made by the Turkish state. It is enough to say that he held none of the Turkish-language slogans precipitate throughout the crowd, nor appeared particularly interested in sharing quotable “demands” in the language, either.
Cüneyt G. stood along the periphery of the celebration, rocking back and forth on his heels to the clangy solo of a Kurdish tanbur guitar in the distance. He had a light, freckled complexion and auburn hair. Cüneyt was born in the eastern province of Van and, like many of the city’s other two million Kurdish inhabitants, moved to Istanbul to find work. In Turkish I asked the shopkeeper what the slogan “Status to the Kurds” – translated by a Kurdish media source as “Recognition for Kurds” – meant. He listed off a number of widely discussed demands, some of which, including legalizing television broadcasts in Kurdish, were addressed in widely touted government reforms years earlier. When I pointed this out to the intent interviewee, he told me that although some TV channels now exist in the Kurdish language, the writing and production were still done by Turks.
A bystander who introduced himself only as Bahattin had by now shifted close enough to intercede. “Kurds must be included in the new constitution, too,” he added, flicking a spent Marlboro cigarette onto the grass beneath us. A new constitution is currently being drafted in a parliamentary commission, one article of which is to address the question of citizenship, which currently describes all citizens as “Turks.” “‘Kurds’ must be written in next to Turks, and all other minorities,” the Istanbul native continued.
I asked both men what “Freedom to Kurdistan” meant in their eyes. Did they support a separate Kurdish state? “Olmaz,” Cüneyt shot back, “No way. The Turkish Republic and the Kurdish Republic are one and the same.” He argued that the region should rather be granted more autonomy, the ability to determine its own laws and maintain its own budget. “Like American states,” Bahattin suggested.
The men returned my Kurdish “thanks” for the interviews with tickled expressions and synchronized nods. Pondering the mainstream demands I had received, I took fewer than three steps before a self-declared Kurdish Marxist placed a glossy publication in my hands. In broken English, the short but imposing Nuriye G. politely demanded I purchase the March edition of “Marxist Approach” for three liras. I bargained for a quote and walked away with two editions for five.
“Bringing peace and further rights to Kurds is important, yes,” Nuriye told me in mixed Turkish-English before pursuing her next sale, “But the problem is bigger than this.” She slid fifty Karl Marx’s back into her tote bag and pointed at the two staring blandly at me from the copies in my hand. Folding back the cover page, I read a few sentences before coming to the first article’s own slogan: “Yes to solutions in line with the national democratic aspirations of the Kurdish people! No to bourgeoisie imperialist adventures!” “Freedom” and “status” for Kurds are disposable bricks in a larger power grab in the Middle East, argues the author. The reader must be vigilant and prepared for battle.
Later that week in Dıyarbakır, a letter from Öcalan was read aloud to the masses gathered there to celebrate the peak of the Newroz holiday week. Öcalan called for a cease-fire among PKK rebels and for the militants to exit Turkey, back across the borders of Iraq and Syria. Two days later I sought out a perspective on the developing story from outside the context of the spring holiday.
“Things are getting better. Ten years ago – or five even – we wouldn’t be having this conversation here,” Aslıhan Zengin tells me through long curly locks of crimson-streaked hair, a glint in her eyes indicating that an impassioned reply awaits the end to each of my prompts. I joined Zengin, an assistant at the Istanbul-based Kurdish community organization Goc-Der, and a few students from the top-tier Boğaziçi University, in a classic Turkish cafe and patisserie a short walk from the waters of the Bosporus.
We exchange greetings and I’m taught a few new Kurdish phrases amidst the bustle of sharply-dressed waiters. A soft-spoken student excitedly introduces the members of her family, celebrating at Kazlıçeşme Square in full traditional dress, in photos taken the previous week. I ask the group about the banners we see in the background of the photos. Zengin shifts forward in her seat to address “status to Kurds”.
“Kurdish children when they go to school – and this is their first interaction with the state – suddenly hear a different language from what they learned at home,” Zengin begins. She describes the stress and difficulty experienced by young Kurdish students, especially in the Southeast, where education standards are often poor, in adapting to a state curriculum which emphasizes the virtues of Turkish national history at the expense of Kurdish history or culture.
“Each day you have to stand up in school and say ‘How happy is he who calls himself a Turk.’ What I read in the parentheses of that statement is ‘…and if you are Kurdish, you can go to Hell’.”
Servet Karakuş, a student of counseling psychology at Boğaziçi, nods as Zengin speaks. Karakuş, who grew up in the diverse city of Mardin near the Iraqi border, spoke generally of discrimination against Kurds still prevalent in Turkey. Pointing to his black and white kefiyyeh-style scarf, a cultural symbol for Kurds, he explains that at night, police will target and intimidate youth who wear it, taking down names and asking them their business being out. It engenders mistrust in the state, Karakuş says, and posits Kurds as outsiders.
Karakuş wonders if Turkey is equally for Kurds then why so many are relegated to jobs in the service industry. Zengin adds that to get jobs in Istanbul, Kurds feel they need to hide their accent.
At Kazlıçeşme Square, I comment, Kurds were to be explicitly written into the constitution as an ingredient in the remedy to unfair treatment. Karakuş agrees, tentatively, before ultimately siding with Zengin’s counter. The constitution, she argues, should consider citizenship as a right of all those born in Turkey, with no reference to ethnicity. Their answer – and even brief hesitation – highlights what is lacking from the representation of the Kurdish people in Turkey. In exchange for the promises of grand political bargains, slogans eschew the nuance, disagreement and ongoing deliberation inherent in the beliefs of a crowd.
Kurds are socialists, shopkeepers, and soldiers. Kurds want to be Kurdish, though most want to be that in Turkey. Kurds want the full benefits of the status quo, or if not, a revolution. Some Kurds just don’t want to talk about it. The banners and picket signs prevalent at Turkey’s Newroz celebrations play a role as cheat sheets for the country’s Kurdish question. But conversations to extricate their meaning indicate that attempting simple answers to that question will continue to come up short.
Brett Marler is a native of Springfield, Missouri, who was adopted by the city of Kırşehir, Turkey, in 2010. He has since taught language at the Ankara University Faculty of Divinity and currently edits copy at Today’s Zaman on the European side.